Get in a time machine and take a trip back to the mid-to-early 80’s, and the early-to-mid 90’s, and you’ll find a lot of things that are different from today. From kids wearing jorts thinking they were actually cool, to skateboarding being the new flagship sport of the era, to surprise hit movies like ‘The Mask’ and ‘Scream’. But for the video game medium, the one genre which reigned supreme as the “standard” for high quality animation, writing, and graphics, were adventure games.
In 1990 you had the release of ‘King’s Quest V’, called by ‘Computer Gaming World’ as a “tour de force” of high quality VGA graphics unparalleled at the time, insane sound card audio quality, and a state-of-the-art GUI instead of a text parser as was the standard for most adventure games before it, ‘King’s Quest V’ was decidedly a benchmark of the era, not just of its own genre but gaming as a whole. During that same year you also had ‘The Secret of Monkey Island’, which was described as having brilliantly clever writing, memorable characters, and one of the most well-written humorous stories available on computer. Now those two games are both remembered as classics of the genre.
Fast-forward 30 years and mention “adventure games” and people think of the likes of ‘Uncharted’ or ‘The Last of Us’, games that are decidedly adventure in theme, but not even remotely-so in regards to gameplay. Their gameplay is decidedly linear, filled with more cover-based shooting and stealth than puzzle solving or exploration. The closest we get to “adventure games” are the ‘Telltale Games’ releases, such as ‘Tales From The Borderlands’, or ‘The Wolf Among Us’, or ‘The Batman: Enemy Within’. Games which, while having their own appeal, are closer to being a “choose your own adventure” book where your social interactions change the type of ending you get. Puzzle solving is far more limited, if existent at all, exploration is far more limited, relegated to exploring your immediate surroundings instead of the world at large, and instead of getting complete games we get episodic releases. One has to dig through the pile of indie trash to find actual adventure game gems these days, games the likes of ‘Dropsy’, or ‘Quest for Infamy’, or ‘VirtuaVerse’. Titles which hold far closer to the roots of adventure games than anything you will see coming from any major studio. So what caused this “decline”?
Many will point to blog posts from wildly popular late 90’s and early 2000’s websites like ‘Old Man Murray’, blogs which admittedly exist solely for offering contrarian viewpoints which itself is already invalidating of much of their content, invalidating for the lack of genuineness and instead finding a need to offer a contrary opinion no matter how petty. Conversely, I started this blog not as a way of offering a contrary narrative to the mainstream, but more of an unfiltered opinion not based in marketing schemes, paid reviewership, or appealing to the majority sensibilities. So what did these old “blogs” have to say? Well, the first thing people will mention is that adventure games “committed suicide” by way of ridiculous puzzles, absurdly hard trial-and-error gameplay, and a reliance on archaic interfaces. Those are all completely idiotic statements.
Lets get to the first qualm, the “ridiculous puzzles”. I will admit adventure games do have their fair share of ridiculous puzzles, although these are by no means the standard of which their gameplay primarily consists of. The infamous “cat mustache” of ‘Gabriel Knight 3’ became so omnipresent in the popular thought of what adventure games are that it would eventually get its own Wikipedia page. “Oh the inhumanity”, the people who have never played a single adventure game in their lives screamed, “This is the reason for the death of adventure games!” they continue to shout, never having even heard of other titles in the genre other than the titular game the puzzle they read about was based on. This perceived fake outrage ignores the fact that, quite frankly, ‘Gabriel Knight 3’ sold like shit. By 1999, the adventure game genre was already feeling the death throes of its 2000’s era collapse (before it would be reborn in the 2010’s). You cannot be responsible for the death of a genre if your game was not widely received enough to be disliked by the masses that proclaimed to have founded its success. The fact of the matter is that by 1999, a new genre was taking its place, the First-Person Shooter. We saw a drop in the sales of multiple genres, such as RPG’s, Racing games, Platformers, and Fighting Games. We instead saw the likes of ‘Halo’, ‘Half-Life’, ‘Call of Duty’, and ‘Far-Cry’ come to the forefront. Games were moving away from the varied genre approach and coalescing into more concentrated forms, which the Third-Person Action games would come to adopt with the likes of ‘Max Payne’, ‘Gears of War’, and even games that used to be survival horror such as ‘Resident Evil’ opting to jump in line with the rest of the pack and adopting a more linear, action-heavy, shooter-centric approach to its gameplay, abandoning the multi-layered puzzles and focus on avoiding confrontation. In all honesty, if one goes back to look at the reviews of said adventure games with “ridiculous puzzles” like ‘King’s Quest’ or ‘Space Quest’, one finds reviews mentioning how they were actually “dumbed down” in later entries in the series. The puzzles that are admonished today were lauded decades ago during their heyday.
Did sensibilities change? Perhaps, as we can see in other mediums people’s tastes adapt over time. You will rarely find someone listening to a ‘Beatles’ album these days, even if they do have it saved somewhere on their playlist amongst the hundreds of other bands they purport to be fans of. But I do not think they did. I think the advent of the new successful genre of First-Person Shooters accumulated enough hype surrounding the fast-paced frenetic gameplay that adventure games, along with a host of other genres, simply got put on the back-burner by companies who wanted to focus on being the next big ‘Doom’ clone. Which brings me to the next supposed qualm.
Are adventure games “archaic”? Well, no. If you look at ‘Wolfenstein 3D’, and you look at the more recent First-Person Shooter games, the core premise of them has not changed much at all in the last 30 years since their advent. Sure, you can jump, look up and down, interact with the environment more, and have a greater sense of story to motivate you, but overall, you are still navigating levels, killing hordes of enemies, inevitably getting to the end of a level or chapter or section, and then fighting a “boss”, complete with needing to find keys to open doors. The biggest change may be the fact that you can drive vehicles now, but overall, the core premise from their advent to where they are now has remained roughly intact enough to still be recognizable to what they once were. “But that’s not true! FPS games have evolved past finding keycards and fighting hordes of enemies!” Oh, really? Is that the case? Is that why in ‘Doom’ (2016) you had the primary gameplay apparatus being finding keycards and fighting hordes of enemies? Is that why ‘Quake Champions’ still uses identical gameplay to that of ‘Quake 3’ just with an updated graphics engine? Adventure games already made their leaps from archaic design principles to more modern interaction, they abandoned the text-parser in favor of the GUI, just like early FPS games made the jump from being mazes to being multi-tiered environments full of interaction. The gameplay remained the same, but the mode of play expanded, and I can prove that these so-called “archaic designs” are anything but, all we need to do is look at ‘Broken Age’, which was one of the earliest, single largest examples of success from the crowd-funding projects of yesterday, and what popularized the concept of crowd-funding all the back in 2012. It gained near unprecedented support at the time, garnering over $3 million in funding against a goal of only $400,000. That is also what arguably spurred the creation of what is now a thriving classic adventure game genre among the indie community.
The “trial-and-error” gameplay of yesterday which people use as an excuse is also now getting revamped and re-integrated. From games such as ‘Snail Trek’ to bigger and more advanced titles such as ‘STASIS’, the indie community seems to have no problem re-implementing these supposed “genre destructive” design features of classic adventure titles that, much like the purported “ridiculous designs” and “archaic interfaces”, are being enjoyed just as much now with reckless abandon, by people who never got to originally experience that type of gameplay, as when the classic adventure titles first released. Indeed, it appears many of the supposed excuses for the “downfall” of adventure games were just that, excuses, thrown up by know-it-all snobs who did not have the faintest clue of where the industry was heading and why, and then regurgitated by the mindless masses who were all too eager to let these out-of-touch morons who did not understand the very industry they were criticizing, do their thinking for them.
I could spend countless hours pouring over the dozens of would-be excuses by people who have little to no experience with the genre, who also did not live through said era, explaining to me the reason for its downfall. There could be someone older, even a developer of adventure games from the era who argues against my statements, but the facts speak for themselves; there is a fervent desire for classic adventure titles, regardless of what your ideologues have to say about it.